“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Isak Dinesen
The woman wrapped blankets around her children, a small boy and a smaller girl. The little ones clamored for their nightly story. It didn’t seem to matter to them that they huddled in what was left of their home. They didn’t seem disheartened after spending another day searching for food. Their mother began the story as she always did, “Not far from here and not long ago.”
The children stepped into the story.
Some of her stories ended the same night they began. Most went on night after night. Each story started with some kind of yearning that turned into a quest. Many times the characters in the story had to step aside to wait or go another way before continuing on. They were confronted by danger, hunger, and riddles. The characters learned to be patient and clever.
Sometimes decisions they made earlier came back to help them or hinder them. In one story they were grateful to find humble roots growing along their path. Weak from starvation the characters dug them up, rinsed them in a nearby stream, and boiled them over a tiny fire. Just as they were finally about to eat some fellow travelers came by asking if they had food to share.
“Careful,” the boy and girl’s mother interrupted the story. “Notice the travelers’ eyes and their hands. Are they thieves? You must show them your strength as well as your kindness. What would you do?”
The boy and girl said they would share. As the story went on these same thieves protected the characters from an enemy but later stole the only stone that warded off a trickster’s wicked prank. When the boy and girl exclaimed that it wasn’t fair their mother explained that the characters saved four lives by sharing the food, which was good, but they’d forgotten thieves could never be trusted. The children nodded as their mother went on with the story.
The characters in the story were always a mother with her boy child and girl child. They weren’t always people. Sometimes they were animals searching for their rightful place in the world. Or elf-like creatures seeking to restore lost magical powers. Or a queen traveling with the prince and princess, gathering clues to unlock a mystery. Often they were joined in their quest by other characters. Some of these characters had wisdom to offer. Others tricked and cheated them. Others ignored them entirely.
The children protested each night when their mother’s voice grew increasingly hoarse and she finally told them it was time for sleep. They felt as if they’d fallen from the story world. But she always promised there would be more to tell the next evening.
The family spent years waiting. For what, exactly, the children weren’t sure. A better home awaits us, their mother assured them, but it’s a long way away and not all will be easy once we arrive. During the daytime she taught them to speak a language no one else knew. It sounded like birds chirping and scratching on the roofline. Sometimes she taught them songs while they ground grain or chopped vegetables for stew. Mostly she taught them to be wary and watchful. The little ones barely noticed as they got taller except that it was a struggle to keep them in clothes that fit. They rarely had jackets or shoes. Sometimes they had no food either.
The nightly stories grew longer. Sometimes it took weeks to finish one tale. The story’s characters found many obstacles in their way and often, just when the troubles were unendurable and the characters ready to give up, the story would change in ways they couldn’t have imagined. The only thing that seemed to matter was that the characters didn’t lose heart.
Then everything changed. The mother showed the boy and girl a packet she had carefully hidden in the folds of her sweater. “Passports and documents,” she whispered. That very day the family left on their own journey away from the place they’d lived their whole lives. The children had never before encountered such hurry and so many crowded places. They stayed close to their mother as they waited in lines, were scrutinized by men behind tall counters, and had papers stamped. Before long they were strapped into seats on a huge craft. As it began to move the mother told a story. They didn’t know it would be her last.
There were three characters, a mother wolf traveling with a female pup and a male pup nearly as large as his mother. Although they lived in a land filled with sunsets that inspired beautiful wolf songs to rise from every hilltop, they were driven away by something worse than hunger. Their journey took them to a bridge so long they couldn’t see the other side. Behind them were wolves like themselves, thin and desperate. They weren’t sure what kind of creatures lived on the other side of the bridge but still, they were determined to get there. Suddenly in front of them loomed a fearsome beast with no eyes but many claws. He made the bridge shake so hard that they tumbled off, all except for the young male wolf who clung to the underside. He tried to pull himself up as he challenged the beast to fight. The beast loomed over him, roaring loudly with breath that crackled and smoked. Still the young wolf struggled to get back on the bridge. Then he felt something grab his feet from below. He kicked with all his strength but couldn’t loosen the hold. It wasn’t until he looked down that he saw his mother and sister wolves pulling his feet. They hadn’t fallen far. Just below the bridge was a forest of fruit and nut trees with branches reaching nearly to him. But he wouldn’t let go. He hauled himself up for battle. Just them the huge creature stomped down on his paw. His leg curled up at the monster’s touch as if scorched by fire and the wolf fell down, down, down to land on his mother wolf and sister wolf where they crouched in a tree. When he opened his eyes his mother was unable to speak and his sister unable to hear and his leg was twisted.
The story went on through the night. The boy and girl sat enraptured as their mother unfolded a tale rich as legend. The wolf characters trekked through strange forests finding nourishment that slowly began to heal them. Brightly colored birds taught them to fly. When the rocks under their feet started to crumble the wolf family lifted in the air, soaring toward mirrored mountains that appeared in the distance. The mother wolf could now speak in a whisper, the female pup could hear loud sounds, and the nearly grown male pup’s leg was nearly straight. Their fur prickled in fear but their journey had made them powerful in ways they were only now beginning to recognize. By the time they landed they knew that together they were invincible.
The story ended as the craft came to a halt. The girl held back, looking out the window at the unfamiliar surroundings. The mother stood, taking the boy and girl’s hands. “We have arrived,” she said. “No more of my stories. It is time for you to tell stories to me.”
Passengers streamed past them, people whose clothes and skin looked as foreign as mythical creatures. Most of them looked straight ahead but some of them smiled at the family. Their mother said to her children in a voice fierce with pride, “Always remember the word “immigrant.” It means you are one of the strong.”